Sunday, January 09, 2011

Throw Away Society

Last week in teaching economics I used a new article from the Washington Post about Amazon as an example of a company or individual patenting a new technology. If you didn’t hear about it, Amazon has come up with a way to return gifts you receive before you even receive them. If you are feeling cheated already, wait until you hear more.

With this new technology you can set up various filters which will essentially guarantee that you get gifts you want and don’t get gifts you don’t. For example; your mother sends you a CD for Kenny G for Christmas, via Amazon. You hate Kenny G, so months ago you set up your account to say, “any gift involving Kenny G convert to gift card” and BAM! You get a gift card instead of the Kenny G CD. Now the tricky part, does mom find out? Well, you have the option, you can send a card saying, “thanks for the Kenny G” or you can say, “Thanks for the Kenny G, but I converted it to a gift card, I don’t like Kenny G.” You can also set your account to convert all gifts from mom, no matter what. Or you could set it up to interact with a wish list so no matter what the gift or from whom you convert it.
The reason a retailer like Amazon would do this is to cut production costs. Every time someone doesn’t get the gift they want a package comes back to the warehouse and has to be repackaged and restocked, not to mention the initial un-stocking and shipping that was wasted to begin with. Amazon is cutting costs, raising profits. When 28 billion in goods was sold this holiday season and 30% of those returned I can hear the Amazon share holders clinking glasses now.

The reason I found out about this new technology was because of a discussion that was happening in my office near my desk. Where I work 4 teachers share a large room and so we chat often exchanging ideas. I got involved in a conversation about what a big waste Christmas gifts are. The idea that pretty much all of us were agreeing to was that Christmas has gotten too commercial. The massive amount of goods that people buy and the carelessness with which they do it is, well, not good.

Now some of you may remember 4 years ago when I wrote a post here called “Gift of the Magi” You may find it here

Mainly I lamented the waste of Americans and suggested that Christmas was about something deeper than gifts. I stand by that. I also said a few things about the amount of trash that Americans are expected to generate during their lifetimes. Combining waste on the consumer and well as producer end it would be about 1,000 tons of garbage. A very small percentage of that gets recycled, but a lot of it just goes to a landfill. In landfills many things can break down, or decompose. Unfortunately not everything can decompose. Most plastics do not decompose. Ever. They can get smaller and smaller, but they never break down. This is a problem considering the proliferation of plastics and the ever growing human population.

3 years ago I read a book called ‘The World Without Us’. While the first half was terribly interesting and detailed how everything we have built up as humans would just fall apart if we were to disappear, the second half of the book was almost exclusively about plastic. It was at this time that I first learned about the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.
The patch is an area in the Pacific Ocean, floating thousands of miles from civilization, somewhere between the size of Texas and the continental United States. It is hard to say because no one can draw a distinct boundary around plastics floating in the oceans. The best you can do is to measure concentrations of plastic in the water. Estimates by the UN are that in the garbage patch there are 40,000 pieces of plastic per square mile. The Patch is characterized by exceptionally high concentrations of plastics, chemical sludge, and other debris that have been trapped by the currents of the North Pacific Gyre, one of five such gyres in the world. The North Pacific Gyre works in the way a toilet would, swirling slowly and concentrating matter in the center. Because of this, much garbage in the ocean will find its way into the center of the gyre, though it may take years. During that time much of the plastic is broken into smaller bits and sinks below the surface, but is still in the water. Note though breaking into smaller bits doesn’t mean that it turns into its base elements. That will never happen. It is just that the plastic becomes smaller pieces of plastic.
Essentially people may think, this garbage patch is floating in the ocean, very far from land. That is gross, but it isn’t actually harming us and even if it were, it is a patch and we could just clean it up. Like most problems in the world people think that if it’s not in front of them they don’t care enough to do anything about it.

The problem actually is right in front of us. Plastic comes back to us in many ways. Animals living in the oceans, fish most obviously but also other organisms, eat those pieces of plastic because they resemble food. In some parts of the gyre concentrations of plastic are 10 times the amount of biomass. When creatures seek small organisms like plankton for food they are really getting a lot of plastic. While eating plastic is bad enough these pieces of plastic are extra toxic. Due to the nature of plastics they are a magnet for toxic materials and as this plastic floats through the ocean it accumulates toxins from the water around it. By the time an animal eats the plastic it can have up to a million times the toxicity of the water surrounding it. When you plug that into the equation you may want to think twice about eating marine life. As the plastic works its way up the food chain the toxicity becomes greater and greater, just like large fish like tuna and marlin are known to have high levels of mercury the larger a fish gets the higher the concentration of other things as well. The next time tuna or other ocean fish land on your plate remember that you are just another step up the food chain, accumulating what your food has accumulated.
So of course, we should clean it up, but the reality is that we can’t. The project is too huge. No government, let alone even a combination of governments, would be willing to spend the resources projected to clean up the ocean.
There is no easy solution to the garbage patch. What will likely happen is that human consumption of plastic will continue, the patch will grow, and marine life will increasingly suffer, meaning we will too. The best thing that we can do is to use our power as consumers of plastic to change the types of plastic we consume and the level at which we consume them. Before buying that Halloween mask you will use once, before taking that plastic bag at the grocery store, before buying a product from the shelf that has lots of unnecessary packaging, before choosing which kind of bottled drinks think for just a second about how you can make a better choice.
It has been more than a year now since I became vegetarian and I don’t regret it at all. In fact it has been one of the best decisions I have ever made, one that I am most proud of. Sure, I do occasionally think it would be nice to have a burger or maybe some cured ham, but now I know what my consumption habits result in and I can’t justify eating meat anymore. Faced with that choice, denial or changing my lifestyle, I changed my lifestyle. I saw something wrong with the world and instead of ignoring it because it seemingly wasn’t right in front of me; I took the time to understand it better and to take responsibility for my actions. I plan to do the same thing this year with plastic. Sure, it will be impossible to get away from plastic. It is everywhere. However, I can greatly reduce the amount and type that I use. Reducing the amount can be done in easy ways like bringing my own re-usable grocery bag to the store. Aya and I have done this for about 2 years now and it is working great. I estimate we use about 300 less plastic bags every year, but really that is a drop in the ocean, we can do much better.
Changing the type of plastic I use may be much harder, but I have some leads on how to do so. There are more than a handful of companies now that are investing in non-petroleum base, biodegradable plastics. Earth Soul and Plantic are two examples of companies making plastic from biodegradable materials and Sony has developed a plastic that it now uses in its product, which is biodegradable. In the United States Cargill has developed a plastic made from chicken feathers. Two birds with one stone there, taking a waste product and making into a new product.
It will take time and much more research to figure out exactly in what ways I can change my habits. We are all in different situations and one person’s abilities are not the same as another’s but we can all take a few minutes to consider the world around us. Now that you have read this you too can be faced with a decision, denial or change of lifestyle?